A hint of (gentle) madness
By Laurent Feneau
Looking a little like Silvio Orlando - 1st prize for interpretation at the recent Venice Festival - combined with a refreshing enthusiasm, Tomaz Kavcic works with the simplest produce from the heart of the Slovenian mountains. Water, bread, salt or how to produce miracles out of thin air. Or almost
The Slovenian bear is often talked about more than the gastronomy of his native
country. If the bear is fond of trout, so is Tomaz Kavcic. With, however, a
preference for those from his region which he dishes up on the flat stones from
the torrent that flows close by his restaurant. But beware. Before enjoying
these trout, the guest has to undergo a test
water! In fact, he has to
plunge his hands - and, if possible, his forearms - into a tank of icy water
fed by the torrent in question. Initiation, the relics of a local custom? No,
just a matter of "initiating a general physical sensation that transcends
the mere experience of taste and invites the guest to discover the natural environment
of the fish ". We've got the message. This young Slovene chef is part of
the culinary movement that is campaigning for a radical return to nature. Except
that as far as Mister Kavcic is concerned, this pastoral attraction is no mere
pose. Here, a closeness with Nature has clearly found its place in the rhythm
of your steps as you take a stroll at the end of summer along the golden path
of a dapple-shaded mountain. The young Slovene chef's cooking resounds first
and foremost like an invitation to open a gate into a secret garden, a culinary
Ode to Joy where, between two views of the countryside, you can let yourself
become emotional about the raw but essential flavour of a cep mushroom, of the
simple, tangy freshness of fresh cheese from the valley.
Obviously, this extreme experience can be appreciated on the spot in Zemono, the little hamlet that is home to the restaurant with an almost unpronounceable name - Pri Lojzetu! - run by Tomaz. Perched on a hill in the middle of a valley surrounded with forests and mountains, it is just a few kilometres away from Italy. And yet, everything already seems so far away
In keeping with this region, Tomaz Kavcic displays authenticity and integrity. Coming from a line of four generation of chefs, he grew up in the kitchen. He was even born there a premature baby. The doctors also decreed that his survival would depend on his appetite. The fairies leaned over his cradle and granted him the best of all faults: a weakness for good food.
Neglecting his schoolwork, he began to work alongside his mother whose influence still shines through his present day creations. Self-taught from the soul, Tomaz quickly distanced himself from the family restaurant in order to develop his own techniques. He joined the Barcelona chef, Antonio Gras, so that he could hone his culinary skills. "As far as I am concerned, the Spaniards are the strongest in terms of creativity and technique", he explained. This proved to be a decisive experience that enabled him to leave the parental culinary cocoon for good and open his own establishment. And to pursue his ideal "cooking is a bit about tradition but also a great deal about innovation. However, the aim of any creation must be pure flavour, the least sophisticated and, therefore, necessarily the most right ".
In his almost philosophical but always poetic quest, the Pri Lojzetu chef works with the most basic and yet most essential foods: water, - that from the trout river! - plants from the surrounding heights and, above all bread. " During my childhood, I would wake up each morning to the aroma of the fresh bread my mother was baking. " Nature mother or Mother Nature? Using the simplest of raw materials and deliberately keeping to local produce, Tomaz follows an approach that is close to that of Michel Bras or Andoni Luis Aduriz. But the comparison ends here because techniques differ just like sensitivity.
Because Tomaz Kavcic's work is unique, in terms of both its radical nature and of its poetic dimension, we need to search for references beyond the culinary arena and in a more artistic realm. Thus, when he talks of "a cuisine that is both poor and rich", it is logical to think of the Arte Povera and its Italian artists - painters and sculptors - using the simplest of techniques and the most humble materials - occasionally salvaged objects - to illustrate the reality of their era. Like these artists, Tomaz works with produce and materials found in an environment that he reproduces in his own manner, that is to say in all its simplicity. "Technique must never be complicated but placed at the service of the most accurate retranscription approach to nature and its various products".
This culinary minimalism also applies to his cooking methods. In fact, it is in this area that the chef's approach is the most personal and, in any case, the most atypical. In the kitchen, his main ally is salt, not used as a mere ingredient but as both a cooking material, essential seasoning and more, " as if a part of the sea refused to go back to the sky ". That is how the piastra was born - the baking stone made of salt - becoming the very signature of the Slovene chef's cuisine. The secret of this stone? The steam released by the damp salt cooks in the gentlest and most delicate manner. The result is that the flavours of the product are exalted and flesh rediscovers its natural taste.
Once again, what he is attempting to bring to the table are the sensations that he experiences in the countryside. In the mountains but also in the salt marshes. Because, for his cuisine, this chef is fortunate in having access to unprocessed "whole" sea salt originating from the Pirano region of Slovenia. It is there that, a few years ago, he met an old salt worker from Pirano. "He told the most wonderful tales and it's thanks to him that I came to understand that each grain had its own story and had to be cared for and cosseted a bit like bringing up children. It is only then that salt will reveal the full extent of its treasures".
These few precious crystals sublimate each of the local products used. They enable us to assimilate this strange concept of "a cuisine that is both poor and rich" which acquires its full meaning when, with a harmony that nothing can disturb, each flavour, each aroma reaches right to the heart of the guest. And as Tomaz's cuisine is placed before us like an offering*** - of salt, of course - we raise our eyes to the heavens and agree that these little crystals from the sea were right to stay on earth
|Fish cooked on a bed of salt|